DAN SCHNUR, director of USC’s Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics.
This op-ed originally appeared at Politico.
We’ve become accustomed to the fact that the American people don’t like Congress. But what happens when even Congress doesn’t like Congress anymore?
Answer: They go home. Members of Congress are so fed up with gridlock, they are leaving the body in droves. In the past four years alone, almost two dozen incumbents have thrown up their hands and decided not to seek reelection, a number that is unprecedented in modern political history. Over the past three decades, this rate of departure is almost double that which we have seen over any other four-year period.
These members, Democrats and Republicans alike, are not departing because they’ve lost reelection campaigns or because they fear defeat at the hands of a better-funded or more popular opponent. They’re heading for the exits because they’re tired of the gridlock. These men and women came to Washington to solve problems. But in increasing numbers, they now recognize that in a bitterly divided, hyperpartisan Congress, that’s simply not going to happen.
Their frustration is understandable. Congress has always welcomed strenuous philosophical debate and stark partisan disagreement. But the disagreements have become more intractable, and the incentives for cross-partisan cooperation are disappearing.
The departing legislators are not running from difficulties. They are still motivated to work to solve problems but have found that Congress simply isn’t the place to do it. As Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) points out, well-intentioned elected officials are becoming yet another casualty of gridlock.
Measures of polarization show a more divided Congress now than at any point since the Civil War. That’s why respected members of Congress like Sens. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Lieberman are all leaving after this year — they don’t think Congress is the best place to make a difference.
Listen to Snowe talking about the body in which she has served since the early 1970s: “We are missing … the key component to civility in politics — and that is a willingness to listen to and work with those with whom we disagree, and to respect differing views.”
This is not to suggest that Congress should become a haven only for moderates. Principled liberals and equally principled conservatives are necessary driving forces for change and represent legitimately held ideological priorities across the political spectrum. But in order to solve problems, to take on the nation’s most difficult public policy challenges, committed conservatives and liberals alike must also find ways to cooperate with those who don’t always agree with them.
Democrats and Republicans used to be willing to build relationships across party lines. They’d meet up after hours, and their relationships would allow them to come to deals on the nation’s most pressing problems. Think of President Ronald Reagan and House Speaker Tip O’Neill finding a way to move forward on Social Security reform. That’s changed. “Today, crossing the aisle is tantamount to treason,” says Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.), who himself is another casualty of gridlock.
America literally cannot afford for these casualties to continue. With a struggling economy and a fiscal cliff approaching, action is necessary. But action is only possible with across-the-aisle cooperation — and cooperation is precisely what the current incentive structure prevents.
Elected officials respond to incentives. The only way to fix the system is by changing them and giving a voice in Washington to those who are committed to problem-solving.
No Labels, a national grass-roots movement of more than half a million Republicans, Democrats and independents, is building this voice to create a pressure point for common sense in Washington — one that calls for lawmakers to stop fighting and start fixing.
Americans can find solutions. We’ve proven it again and again throughout our history. With enough support, we can change the system and break through the gridlock so lawmakers can actually find solutions, like they were sent to Washington to do.